National Public Radio has introduced a nifty little feature that lets you create your own custom podcast of NPR content on topics that interest you. Type in Obama or Madonna or whatever, and you can sign up for a stream of NPR clips that match your keywords that can be downloaded to your computer, smartphone, iPod or Zune.
On the Crispy on the Outside podcast today we talked about not eating. Specifically, we talked to Sam MacDonald, author of the new book, The Urban Hermit: A Memoir, in which he explains how he lost 160 pounds in about a year eating only 800 calories a day. The interesting thing is that Sam never meant to lose weight. He had gotten himself in a financial mess, owed a lot of money, and so he massively cut back on food and beer. Weight loss was an unintended side-benefit of his crazy scheme.
Also on the show is Ray Lehmann, a journalist who does intend to lose weight, but instead might find himself in a financial mess himself. He recently made a $60,000 bet to lose 60 pounds in 90 days. Talk about motivation: If he doesn’t make it, he’ll find himself in the poorhouse. You can track Ray’s progress on his blog or on YouTube.
“Washington’s libertarian activists and think tankers are still trying to wrap their brains around the new reality. Today you can sort them into two rough categories. There are the Bargainers, the ones who believe they can do business with President Barack Obama. And there are the Battlers, the ones who believe Obama can-and should-be impeded while the Republican Party is rebuilt into a genuinely liberty-minded organization.”—Dave Weigel in Reason
The Obama transition team made a big deal about the “Open For Questions" feature on its Change.gov website. Essentially users could submit questions and fellow citizens would vote those questions up or down using a Digg-like mechanism. The top questions would be answered by the team. Real citizen engagement and direct democratic participation yadda yadda.
Today the team released its first round of answers and it leaves a lot to be desired. Here is the fourth most popular question (with 5,376 votes in favor) and the team’s full answer:
Q: “Will you lift the ban on Stem Cell research in your first 100 days in office?” James_M, Nashville, TN
A: President-elect Obama is a strong supporter of Federal funding for responsible stem cell research and he has pledged to reverse President Bush’s restrictions.
Wow. The question was pretty direct, but all they could muster was an artless dodge. Citizen engagement is a two-way street. No amount of wizbang technology is going to manufacture transparency unless both sides are forthcoming. Even if the team didn’t want to commit to anything within the first 100 days, they could have just been honest and said that. “While we can’t promise anything within 100 days because we have other priorities, we believe that…” But no, given an opportunity to show off change, they chose to go old-school.
The one-sentence answer to the top question from users was this: “A: President-elect Obama is not in favor of the legalization of marijuana.” How about treating us like adults and maybe giving us a little context for that position. Given that this is the most requested question on the site, you think they would have given it more attention than a sentence. Unless, of course, they don’t buy into the idea of a wisdom of the crowd, in which case they shouldn’t be bothering with these social media tools.
So, this is all to say that I plan to submit a question of my own in the next round: Are you going to take the “Open for Questions” project seriously and respond to our questions thoughtfully, or are you going to continue to give us short, half-hearted answers?
The latest episode of In Conversation, my weekly podcast with Cord Blomquist, was six months in the making. Here it is. We’re also looking for guests on future shows, so drop a comment if you’re interested.
Great column by Robert Samuelson in today’s Post. I couldn’t agree more with his thoughts on special interests. We are the special interests. Must read.
The only way to eliminate lobbying and special interests is to eliminate government. The more powerful government becomes, the more lobbying there will be. So, paradoxically, Obama’s ambitions for more expansive government will promote special pleading.
Last Thursday I asked for help creating a site that would facilitate crowdsourcing the task of prioritizing the 11,000+ projects proposed in the U.S. Conference of Mayors’ $73 billion “Main Street Economic Recovery" stimulus plan. The point of doing this is to help President-Elect Obama keep his promise that any stimulus spending will be directed at critical infrastructure, and not pork. Roads and bridges and schoolhouses are infrastructure, but dog parks and tennis centers in wealthy neighborhoods probably don’t count.
Software developer Kevin Dwyer stepped up to the plate, took the mayors’ report, and parsed out the projects into an SQLite database. You can find the database here and Kevin’s take on what he did here. Now that we have the data in an easy-to-remix format, I’d like to ask for your help developing the backend for the site.
Going forward I can offer graphic design and copywriting to the project, as well as cat-hearding, which are my comparative advantages. What I don’t have are the technical chops to code the backend. If you are a developer, or know someone who is, and might be willing to help, please read on.
The functionality I’d like the site to have is a lot like what WashingtonWatch.com offers. Each proposed project would have its own item page. That item page would list the project name, city and state, cost, and estimated number of jobs it would create, all of which are included in the database. Then each item page would have a wiki section where users could write (hopefully) neutral POV descriptions of the projects to put them in context. Under that there would be a comments section where users could trade their opinions on the merits of the project. (Perhaps these could be threaded, maybe using Disqus.) Finally, and importantly, each item page will have an up-or-down voting mechanism that will let users register whether they think the project is critical infrastructure or not critical infrastructure. This voting is what will let us rank projects from critical to porcine.
Now, apart from search functionality, we would have to offer easy browsing for folks to find projects that interest them. I think the home page should offer a link to search by city and state. Clicking on that link should offer a list of states. Clicking on a state should offer links to all cities in that state, as well as a list of all projects in that state in case a user doesn’t want to drill-down any further. Clicking on a city will display a list of all projects in that city.
Each of these lists I’m describing should be sortable by name, locality, cost, and estimated number of jobs created. That way someone can click on a state then sort by cost so they can see the most costly projects first. On the home page there should also be a way to browse all projects in the country ordered by cost. Another possible sorting option might be how a project is ranked by users.
So what do you think? I’d love to hear any thoughts or criticism you might have on this proposed interface. I’d also love to hear any ideas of the best way to technically implement this (especially if you’d like to volunteer to help out). I’ve been told one way to do this is to use MediaWiki and create a page for each project. That sounds good but I’d like to make sure we have the ability to rank and sort like I’ve described. Is that possible? I’ve also seen Pligg, a Digg clone, which might do the trick, but it while it has commenting and voting, it doesn’t have a wiki component. Finally, we could beg Jim Harper to let us use his Washington Watch software, but it’s custom-made and I think it’d probably be easier to use something off the shelf. I’m sure there are other ways to do it and it would be great if we could hash them out here. Thanks for your time!
Big bleg: Let's help Obama crowdsource-out the pork
The stimulus plan President-Elect Barack Obama has recently described would help jump-start the economy at the same time it renews our country’s vital infrastructure. And the president-elect is serious about making smart investments. Here he is on Meet the Press last Sunday (emphasis mine):
Well, I think we can get a lot of work done fast. When I met with the governors, all of them have projects that are shovel ready, that are going to require us to get the money out the door, but they’ve already lined up the projects and they can make them work. And now, we’re going to have to prioritize it and do it not in the old traditional politics first wave. What we need to do is examine what are the projects where we’re going to get the most bang for the buck, how are we going to make sure taxpayers are protected. You know, the days of just pork coming out of Congress as a strategy, those days are over.
Well, it’s not just the governors that have “shovel-ready” projects lined up for federal funding, the nation’s mayors also have plenty of projects at the ready. You can see what these projects are at the U.S. Conference of Mayors site where they have published a “MainStreet Economic Recovery Report” along with a database of the projects, their cost, how many jobs they are expected to create, all sorted by state.
As Reason’s Robert Poole points out in the Wall Street Journal, however, not all of the 11,391 ready-to-go projects would qualify as smart investments:
What vital infrastructure projects would cash-strapped taxpayers get for their $73 billion? Here’s a sampling:
- Hercules, Calif., wants $2.5 million in hard-earned taxpayer money for a “Waterfront Duck Pond Park,” and another $200,000 for a dog park.
- Euless, Texas, wants $15 million for the Midway Park Family Life Center, which, you’ll be glad to note, includes both a senior center and aquatic facility.
- Natchez, Miss., “needs” a new $9.5 million sports complex “which would allow our city to host major regional and national sports tournaments.”
- Henderson, Nev., is asking for $20 million to help “develop a 60 acre multi-use sports field complex.”
- Brigham City, Utah, wants $15 million for a sports park.
- Arlington, Texas, needs $4 million to expand its tennis center.
- Miami, Fla., needs $15 million for a “Moore Park Community Center, Tennis Center and Day Care” facility. The city is also desperate for $3.6 million to build a covered basketball court and a new tennis court at Robert King High Park. Then there’s the $94 million Orange Bowl parking garage you are being asked to pay for.
- La Porte, Texas, wants $7.6 million for a “Life Style Center.” And Oakland, Calif., needs $1 million for Fruitvale Latino Cultural and Performing Arts Center.
And you thought infrastructure investment meant roads, bridges and schools. It is clear that any infrastructure stimulus money given to the country’s mayors will lead to thousands of tennis centers to nowhere.
Here is my bleg: Let’s help President-Elect Obama do what he is promising. Let’s help him “prioritize” so the projects so that we “get the most bang for the buck” and identify those that are old school “pork coming out of Congress”. We can do this through good clean fun crowdsourcing. Who can help me take the database on the Conference of Mayors site and turn each project into a wiki-page or other mechanism where local citizens can comment on whether the project is actually needed or whether it’s a boondoggle? How can we create an app that will let citizens separate the wheat from the pork and then sort for Congress and the new administration the project in descending order or relevancy?
I have some technical chops, but in many ways I wouldn’t know where to start. Any takers? If there are, my colleagues and I would love to dive into this and we can probably scrounge up some resources. Who’s with us?
Congrats to FCC.gov on five years without an update
Congratulations are in order for the FCC, which today celebrates five years since it last updated its online docket search system, ECFS. If you look at the bottom of the main search page, you will see the mark of this amazing feat: “updated 12/11/03”. In internet years that like a century. Kudos!
Yesterday at the Cato Institute panel on online transparency (video forthcoming here) I laid into the FCC for being an agency that’s supposed to be tech savvy, but that continues to have an online presence that is absolutely abysmal. Their docketing system is the agency’s lifeblood and yet there is no full-text search, there are no data feeds, and their robots.txt file is set to exclude search crawlers. This is totally unacceptable and I hope a tech-savvy Obama FCC will revamp the site.
Today the Washington Post features Google’s push to modernize government sites to allow it and other commercial search engines to index those sites:
[T]he U.S. government, one of the world’s largest depositories of data, has been unwilling or unable to make millions of its Web pages accessible [to search engines].
“The vast majority of information is still not searchable or findable either because it’s not published or it’s on Web sites which the government has put up which no one can index,” Google chief executive Eric Schmidt said during a recent presentation at the New America Foundation. …
Today, a wide array of public information remains largely invisible to the search engines, and therefore to the general public, because it is held in such a way that the Web search engines of Google, Yahoo and Microsoft can’t find it and index it. Not surprisingly, Yahoo and Microsoft officials agree that people would be better served if more public information became accessible to their search engines.
While an Obama administration could help solve this problem administratively by implementing Google’s sitemap scheme, Congress could also mandate that agencies make their data searchable. That’s exactly one of the thing that the Joe Lieberman-sponsored E-Government Reauthorization Act of 2007 would do. Take your pick, just give us the data!
Friends, I’m speaking tomorrow at the Cato Institute on a lunchtime panel about the prospects and challenges of making more government data available online for the sake of transparency and accountability. I hope you can come by or watch it online. Cheers!
The NY Timesreports today that towns in Connecticut are shuttering their websites because they’re finding it too costly to comply with a new state transparency law that requires towns with websites to “post minutes from public meetings on the site within seven days of the meeting and must give residents at least 24 hours notice of special meetings through the site.” Seems a bit drastic to me. The story explains:
“We decided we couldn’t do what was required right away,” said Frank J. Chiaramonte, first selectman of Harwinton. “So we shut down our site.”
In many small towns, volunteers run the Web sites. Asking the volunteers to type up the minutes of a meeting and to then also put the minutes online,all within seven days, is too much to ask, Mr. Chiaramonte said.
“Some commissions still do minutes in longhand,” he added.
Here’s a tip that may or may not help towns comply with the law: record the public meeting with a cheap MP3 recorder and upload the file to the site. Boom. Instant transparency. Want to get a little fancier? Shoot the MP3 to Amazon’s Mechanical Turk and for a few dollars have the audio transcribed or turned into minutes. Or set up a wiki and let citizens do it.
Like I said, these suggestions might not produce official minutes needed to comply with the law, but it’s the kind of measure I’d like to see instead of shuttering whole sites. One other thing, with storage and recording equipment so cheap, there’s no reason why every public meeting in the country, from the federal government to school boards, shouldn’t be online within a day or two. Enough excuses, folks.
A while back a communications grad student asked to interview me for a class project blog that featured the stories of DC professionals. This is the result, and am I glad I’m the only source for the story. (Thanks, Alicia!)
First, Jim Harper would kill me if I didn’t begin this post by mentioning that I’ll be speaking at a Cato Institute lunch panel entitled, “Just Give Us the Data! Prospects for Putting Government Information to Revolutionary New Uses,” on Wednesday, Dec. 10, along with Ed Felten of Princeton and Gary Bass of OMB Watch. RSVP here. That said, I want to talk about CTOs.
A while back I engaged in a debate about whether Barack Obama’s promise to appoint a national chief technology office should be feared. I think the question turns on whether this person will be CTO of the United States or CTO of the U.S. Federal Government. While I personally believe the former should be feared, the latter should be welcomed.
The good news is that in all of Obama’s pronouncement’s on the matter the position has always been described as having a brief to open the government by employing online tools. Here’s how the position is described in Obama’s campaign position paper on technology:
Bring Government into the 21st Century: Barack Obama and Joe Biden will use technology to reform government and improve the exchange of information between the federal government and citizens while ensuring the security of our networks. Obama and Biden believe in the American people and in their intelligence, expertise, and ability and willingness to give and to give back to make government work better. Obama will appoint the nation’s first Chief Technology Officer (CTO) to ensure that our government and all its agencies have the right infrastructure, policies and services for the 21st century. The CTO will ensure the safety of our networks and will lead an interagency effort, working with chief technology and chief information officers of each of the federal agencies, to ensure that they use best-in-class technologies and share best practices.
To me this sounds more like a Chief Transparency Officer, and that’s a good thing. Most federal government websites are terrible relative to the state of the art. Any effort to make them as useful or informative as the barackobama.com website should be welcomed. We can see the beginning of this transformation at the new change.gov site for the Obama transition team.
The Administrative Law Section of the ABA recently released an excellent report about the state of online access to the federal regulatory process that underscores the need for a more coherent government-wide technology policy. The report finds that while the Bush administration centralized regulatory docket management among executive agencies (and public access to those dockets at Regulations.gov) it allowed each agency to decide for itself what to include in the database without enforcing any kind of standardized metadata. This makes a centralized approach virtually useless and in fact can make finding data difficult. The ABA task force recommends a more-decentralized built around common data and metadata standards.
Also, until recently the Regulations.gov site did not offer structured feeds or full-text search. Even now it only offers one RSS feed for all federal agencies, which I parse out at OpenRegulations.org. What’s more, the official feed only publishes Federal Register notices and ignores comments, supporting materials, or other docket filings. Imagine instead if you could subscribe to a particular proposed regulation and be notified in your RSS reader each time a new document was added to the docket. Imagine all the mashups that would be made possible. That would be closer to the sort of basic use of structured data that we see on blogs and which should be a no-brainer for a 21st Century government website.
A model for the national CTO might be the District of Columbia’s CTO, which was brought to my attention by Maxine Teller. The D.C. CTO’s site offers a Data Catalog that has a virtual cornucopia of government data made available in structured feeds—-from juvenile arrests to registered vacant property to the most recent roadkill pickups. Vivek Kundra, the current CTO, encourages the remixing and mashing of all this data. The office recently held an X-Prize-like contest to encourage developers to make innovative apps. Here are the results. I don’t see any budget or spending data feeds on the D.C. site, however, and I hope that’s something they plan to add soon.
If a national CTO is meant to bring vision and leadership to the federal government’s IT—-especially as it relates to making public information available and useful online like D.C. has done,—-then I’m all for it.
New episode of the Crispy on the Outside podcast. Kyle R. McKenzie interviews Pierre Desrochers, Associate Professor of Geography at the University of Toronto, who along with Hiroko Shimizu has recently published a new Mercatus Center study entitled, “Yes We Have No Bananas: A Critique of the ‘Food Miles’ Perspective.” Kyle talks to Pierre about the origins and validity of the local food movement. It’s a fascinating listen that explains why it does nothing to help the environment and, in my opinion, explains why no food lover could ever limit themselves to eating exclusively local food. Chances are chocolate, coffee, and cereals are not local to you, friend.
For all its apparent openness, its televised debates and public hearings, Congress is more secretive than its reputation suggests. Closed or restricted access to legislative meetings and records may not be the rule, but such behavior is hardly viewed as an exception anymore.
“In my opinion, the problems with tip culture on the web are many, not least the evidence that most of the page-view-obsessed poopers of online tips seem to have zero real interest in solving any problem beyond their own need to generate repeat traffic from dazed information tourists.”—Merlin Mann, who made a name for himself dispensing the poop he now rails against. The thing is he’s right.